Better intelligence-gathering and increased collaboration between local and federal government could curb gang-related crime, gang expert Lavelle Campbell told the Rotary Club of St. Thomas II.
Speaking at the club’s Wednesday meeting, Campbell shared trends of crimes involving guns, gangs and young people.
Campbell has worked most of his life in law enforcement, holding positions in the private sector and the government, including the departments of Justice and Education. He is also known for his campaign to educate the public on gang activity and crime prevention.
The territory had 38 homicides in 2013, according to the V.I. Police Department, 32 of which were shootings. According to Campbell, many shooting incidents – usually drive-bys or perpetrators sneaking up on their victims – involve mostly African-American men age 16 to 24.
The reasons are mostly gang-related and have to do with turf, according to Campbell.
“It’s black on black, and it’s black-on-black hate crime,” he said. “We don’t even know what created that rift but they still don’t like each other because of that geographical location.”
Campbell said the incidents tend to cluster in the same areas – Bovoni, Nadir, Smith Bay, and Anna’s Retreat. They happen at varying times of the day, he said, citing three shootings on St. Thomas last weekend that occurred around 8:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and midnight.
“Crime used to be Friday and Saturday, they hold off on the Sunday,” said Campbell, adding the drop in Sunday crime was ostensibly for religious reasons.
According to Campbell, in addition to deaths and injuries, the statistics of violent crime in the Virgin Islands is “damaging our holistic makeup as a tourist destination.” It also hikes up the uncompensated care costs for the territory’s hospitals that end up treating the usually uninsured victims of such crimes.
“Nobody pays that bill,” he said. “We in here have insurance, but individuals out there, 16 to 24, nobody’s going to pay their bill.”
Campbell said history dictates the territory has not yet seen the worst for 2014.
“We don’t peak until September, so homicides most likely are going to rise in the next weeks or month or so,” he said.
Local and Federal Collaboration
According to Campbell, federal agencies are teaming up with local authorities to intercept firearms coming into the territory. In the Virgin Islands, the law specifies that firearms need to be shipped to a local dealer, who sells them to individuals who have filed the appropriate paperwork and obtained a permit. Some residents, however, still travel with the weapons to the territory.
In such cases, some airlines, after receiving notice that an individual is traveling with a firearm, would notify law enforcement, which, in the Virgin islands, would be the V.I. Port Authority Police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These agencies would then notify the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which could hold the weapon until it is fully cleared.
“It’s a legitimate purchase but they have to make sure they follow this leg of rules,” said Campbell.
Many firearms, however, arrive in the territory illegally. According to Campbell, such agencies as VIPA Police, ICE, ATF and the U.S Postal Service “are intercepting so many guns.”
“Every gun, they can trace back,” he said. “A lot of firearms are being tracked back to the original owner, or dealer, which dealer, which owner.”
Campbell said that at the start of a new school year, police detail on school grounds have not changed. The police and schools need to “rearrange what has not worked,” he said.
It is critical for schools to have police officers who can gather intel by forming relationships with students, Campbell said. Police officers need to be able to just sit down or walk with students and gather crucial information.
“You can see in their eyes, ‘I want to tell you something,’” he explained. “What I’d do, I’d go back and say, ‘Come, let me talk with you.’ Then I’d go in a classroom and we’d just rap. They give me everything I need.”
In 2010, in collaboration with Project Safe Neighborhood, Campbell was involved in a documentary that exposed how gang affiliations of local youth could be identified by the color of bandanas they were wearing.
Campbell said that the “old, antiquated way of policing” no longer works, and that law enforcement needs to keep up with rapidly changing trends. Increased surveillance, for example can be achieved by getting local business owners to train security cameras in areas that might be problematic.
“What’s working right now is being driven by intel, information you can work upon to prevent something,” he said.
Lack of community involvement helps the crime rates rise, according to Campbell, who said residents “should know what’s going on.” This is where heavy awareness campaigns play a role, said Campbell, educating the community about the situation, not pressuring them in the aftermath of a homicide when they no longer feel safe to talk.
“Face that elephant, say to them, ‘This is the issue and this is what we’re going to do,’” he said.
Campbell continues his campaign to help reduce violence in the territory, educating himself by getting boots-on-the-ground information on crime trends across the country, and by taking every opportunity to help educate the public about gang-related crimes in the territory.
Being reactionary does not work, said Campbell, in “preventing it before it got to the level of Columbine, Virginia Tech.”
He said, “I am a Virgin Islander, and I have to be a voice. I have to be a doer.”